The nature of a crime should not, and must not, be assessed by the sum and substance of the victim’s personal history: The killing of an inmate on death row still amounts to murder; the past conduct of a survivor of sexual assault must not be used to blunt their struggles.
Enter Asia Argento. The Italian actor who emerged as one of the first, and most vociferous, advocates of the #MeToo movement, accusing Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault in his hotel room at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, has found herself embroiled in another sexual harassment case. This time, the offence is imputed to Argento.
Sixteen years after she was assaulted by Weinstein in a hotel room, in 2013, recent reports allege, she assaulted the former child actor, Jimmy Bennett, who at the time was 17, in a Marina del Rey hotel room. The age of consent in California is 18. The reports further state that Argento settled a notice of intent to sue from Bennett for $380,000, months after she made news as a prominent Weinstein accuser.
Weinstein’s lawyer has accused Argento of “a stunning level of hypocrisy” and stated that “the sheer duplicity of her conduct is quite extraordinary and should demonstrate to everyone how poorly the allegations against Mr Weinstein were actually vetted.”
The media too has flayed the actor with headlines such as “Asia Minor”, “Et tu, Asia” and “Asia Weinstein”. Argento’s public denials of being sexually involved with Bennett have been ignored and disregarded.
A customary review of a woman’s sexual history is a staple for investigations. It is the premise upon which arguments, in favour or otherwise, of her allegations of sexual assault, are precariously built and vetted, evidenced in daily reportage, courtroom dramas and even dining-room discussions. Her inability to project herself as the “ideal victim” works to invalidate her allegations.
Slut-shaming is often the fate of survivors of sexual assault. In this country, from the extremely high-profile Farooqui and Tejpal cases to last year’s acquittal of a rape-accused in Bombay High Court on the grounds that the testimony of a woman in sexual assault cases needs to be corroborated when the woman in question is habituated to sexual intercourse, the survivor’s conduct before, during and after the crime is subjected to microscopic scrutiny — often beyond the purview of logic, decency and even the law.
Rape shield laws instituted in the United States in the ‘70s, born of the sexual revolution of the ‘60s that advocated the acceptance of premarital sex, birth control along with the emergence of feminist legal theories, address this malady in the prosecution of rape. A rape shield law restricts the investigation of a survivor’s past sexual conduct and was brought in to dissuade defence attorneys from victim-blaming in courtrooms. Of course, the malice extends to media trials as well as to the court of public opinion.
Neither does the public discourse surrounding Argento, as reported, offer the solicitude extended to survivors of sexual assault nor does it laud her for speaking out against the powerful Hollywood producer. She has, for the most part, been painted as a wily climber, deploying charms in the pursuit of ambition. The outdatedness, and banality of the stereotype notwithstanding, this image ensures that Argento does not pass muster as the “ideal victim”.
The very movement Argento was among the first to spark, questions the “ideal victim” narrative.
Some of the accused since last fall have been men whose work has elicited immense respect and adulation in the public domain. Just as the charges against them prove that “heroes”, too, fall from grace and there is no one kind of perpetrator, there is no one kind of survivor either.
As the movement evolves, it must be seen to broaden its scope to deal with the Weinstein-Argento-Bennett case, which today seems like an anomaly in the grand #MeToo narrative. While it has exposed the widespread prevalence of sexual misconduct, it has failed to acknowledge its protagonists as imperfect, flawed beings. The case in question also calls forth a more complex movement, and by extension a more complex idea of feminism, in which a survivor needn’t be model, ideal or perfect, to still be believed.